Music in Antiquity

Musical instruments for entertainment, education and ritual

Literary tradition, artistic representation and archaeological finds all attest to the enormous importance of music in Antiquity.
 
Indeed, music (mousikè) was not conceived as an isolated activity: together with the other arts protected by the Muses, it constituted the core of the education and training of the future citizen (polites) from early childhood.

It represented the child's first form of social interaction with the outside world and accompanied young people during each of the ritual stages by which their complete integration into the adult world was achieved.

Terracotta relief (Late 4th - early 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Stringed instruments 

Stringed instruments were particularly popular in the Greek world. The best known and most frequently attested is undoubtedly the lyra (lyre). Its invention is attributed to Hermes, who, as a child, is said to have presented it to Apollo as a gift.

Sound board of a lyra (5th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The lyra (lyre)

A lyre consisted of a sound-chest (ekéion) made out of a hollowed-out turtle shell or sometimes realized in wood or ivory and covered in cowhide. In this case, two curved, wooden arms (pécheis) are connected to the top by a yoke (zygòn) made of bone or of ivory.

The strings were connected to the tailpiece (chordòtonon) at the bottom of the sound board via a bridge (magàs) and to the yoke by pegs (kòllopes). Perfect for accompanying singers in schools and at banquets.

Figured terracotta Figured terracotta (Second half of the 2nd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The kithara (cithara) 

The kithara (cithara) had a more complex structure than the lyre, enabling virtuoso playing and special sound effects. It was therefore a particularly suitable instrument for professional solo performances.

Miniature cithara (1st century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

It consisted of a large wooden sounding board, trapezoid but sometimes slightly rounded, with two parallel arms joined at the top by a yoke. The yoke could be rotated using the keys at each end so as to achieve the desired tension for the strings, which were fixed to the sound board by means of a tailpiece and bridge.

Terracotta relief (Late 4th - early 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The instrument is believed to have been held in an upright position; in order to bear the weight more easily, the players sometimes used a leather belt fastened to the left wrist and secured to the sound board by a pin.

Lekythos with polychromatic relief decoration - B sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The harp 

Compared to the lyre and the cithara, the harp played a minor role in education and is believed to have been used predominantly in the domestic and female sphere.

The instrument was triangular and consisted of a base that rested on the knees of the player and a slightly curved neck, with the strings, of progressively greater length, stretched diagonally between the two supports.

Between the ends of the base and neck was the vertical column. A representation can be found on the lekythos with polychrome relief decoration, dated to 360-350 BC, discovered in Via Terni in Taranto in 1971.

Apulian red-figured oinochoe (Second half of the 4th century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Percussion instruments 

In contrast, percussion instruments were frequently used in ceremonies associated with Dionysian cults. The tympanon in particular – which according to myth was invented by Dionysus himself – was used to set the tempo of the dance.

Figured terracotta (Late 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The tympanon 

This was done by beating an ox hide stretched over a wooden or metal hoop fitted with handles.

Figured terracotta (Late 3rd century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto


Iconographic representations show numerous variants of this instrument, which was frequently played by women, differing in terms of both shape – flat or slightly concave – and ornamental details such as bells or rattles.

Cymbals (1st century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The cymbals

The cymbals, an instrument of oriental origin first brought to Greece in the 5th century BC, were used primarily in orgiastic or mystery cults, or in public and private performances by itinerant dancers and players.

Characterised by a sharp, ringing sound generated by striking two metal elements against each other, they were more or less convex in shape and were sometimes fitted with rings in the centre for ease of handling.

Miniature bone crotale (350-325 BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

The crotales

Lastly, the crotales were wooden, ivory or metallic discs or squares that were struck against each other by means of a central handle; they were often given to children.

Aulòs (2nd-1st century BC)MArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Woodwind instruments

Of the woodwind instruments, the aulos (flute) was of paramount importance. It consisted of a cylindrical or slightly conical tube made of bone, ivory, sycamore, horn or cane, about 40-50 cm long.

The aulos (flute) 

It was made from one or more pieces joined together, with a variable number of holes for the fingering system. Attached to the main body was the mouthpiece, inside which was the reed, made of metal, cane or wood, whose vibrations produced the sound.

Volute krater by the Karneia Painter - A sideMArTA - Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Taranto

Musicians often played two auloi at the same time, as seen on the proto-Italiote volute krater by the Carnea Painter, found in Via G. Martino in Ceglie del Campo in 1898 and datable to the last few decades of the 5th century BC.


For a more stable mouthpiece, a leather patch (phorbéia) could be used, pierced to allow the insertion of the mouthpieces, which was placed over the lips and tied behind the head. The instruments was stored in uncured hide cases of cow, lynx or pig.

The peripatetic philosopher Aristoxenus of Tarentum, musical theorist and author of Elements of Harmony, emphasised the ethical aspect of music and its effectiveness in the spiritual education of individuals. 

It is no wonder then, that musical instruments were a constant feature of everyday life in Greece and Rome, and are sometimes even found in tombs as part of the grave goods.

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